When I was eight, something wonderful happened to me. September rolled around and I wound up in Mrs. Richardson’s class.
Virginia Richardson was one of those “once in a lifetime” kinds of teachers.
Inspiring, wise, committed, compassionate.
The kind of teacher you want your own children to have every year.
photo by (the amazing) Tim Pierce http://www.flickr.com/photos/qwrrty/5877465734
In Mrs. Richardson’s class, we all sang together every morning, loudly and proudly, off key or on:
“Take a moment when you wake up in the morning, to find a cheery word to say!”
And our teacher modeled exactly what we sang about.
I remember one time, in the middle of a class discussion of the dangers of smoking, one of my classmates blurted: “My dad smokes, but only once a year, I think!”
Guess what Mrs. Richardson did.
You might think she responded like this:
“Please raise your hand!”
“We don’t shout out!”
“Even once a year is too often for cigarettes!”
But here’s what she did.
She smiled. She laughed.
Then she said:
“Oh, and that cigarette must feel like eating a whole box of See’s Candies!”
My mom and grandma smoked, and her response let me know I didn’t have to feel ashamed about it. It wasn’t a good idea, but it didn’t make my mom and grandma–and my family–bad.
I remember how it felt when we would all huddle together on an upholstered mat in the corner and Mrs. Richardson would enthrall us with A Wrinkle in Time. My ears still hear how she said “Mrs. Whatsit,” emphasizing the cool sounds the letters made.
We put our growing arms around each other. We danced wildly to the soundtracks to “The Point” (“Me and my Arrrrrow….Takin’ the high road….”)
and “Free to Be…You and Me” (“Brothers and Sisters, sisters and brothers, each and every one…”)
It was 1976 and we celebrated the Bicentennial. We were all there together–in one place at that one moment in the vast expanse of time that came before us and after us. Happy.
Carmelita taught us some Spanish and how to make Mexican chocolate with the “Bate, bate” stick. Her mom brought in bunelos. I’ll never forget the lightness, the crunchiness, the sugary, cinnamony perfection of those impossibly perfect pinwheels.
Catherine was from Hawai’i, via the Philippines. She taught us “Pearly Shells” and we hula-ed without worrying about whether or not we were doing it right.
Romando, her cousin, was definitely gay. He hung out with the girls and he was the BEST dancer in the whole class. He taught us all how to shake our groove things. We all marveled at his agility and rhythm. The other boys thought it was so cool and tried to get it right. When they didn’t, we all laughed together, and Romando remained the dance champ.
Some kids were really advanced and sharp, some struggled, some may have been stigmatized as “behavior problems” earlier or later in their school lives, but in Mrs. Richardson’s room, everyone was a gift. I never knew which students were her favorites, which ones may have elicited an inward eye-roll. She loved us all: the one with the dirty fingernails, the one with the messy penmanship, the one who had a hard time with math, the one who was rich, but secretly suffering, the one with the pressure to be perfect. And because she did, we did.
There were no “behavior problems” in Mrs. Richardson’s class. Never. Stuff may have gone down on the playground, but within those walls, behind that door with the nondescript number “8”, we were a family. A functional, supportive family, not that other kind, the kind many returned to at 3:00 each day.
When we came in from recess, all jacked up on white bread and chocolate snack pack pudding, would she tell us to quiet down? Would she yell over us to sit still and get to work? Would she wait until every pair of eight-year-old hands were folded and we’d assumed a collective pose of dutiful submission? Of course not. She was Mrs. Richardson.
We would gather around one big table, or flop in a circle on the floor and she would whisper: “Close your eyes, children.” Her love would wash over us and she would guide us through a beautiful scene–walking down the beach, strolling through a quiet meadow, listening to waves or birds or the crunching of leaves–to welcome us back to the safety of her room, our home. In two minutes, max, we were calm and ready for the real learning she always had in store for us.
We learned so much in her class, too. Times tables! Newberry-Award Winning novels! History! It was 1976, after all. We ate up everything about the American Revolution and the thirteen colonies, because it was relevant and fun and real. Not because it was was mandated in the standardized scope-and-sequence. Mrs. Richardson was no spring chicken. She’d already been teaching for many years, but she never seemed tired, distracted or disengaged.
I’m 100% sure if the unbending strictures associated with “No Child Left Behind” had reared their head back then, she would have just laughed. After her laughter subsided, she’d have taken out her secret teacher wand and dissolved them right before our wide eyes.
“Not on my watch!” She would have said. Then she would have blown on her wand, turned to the stunned room full of eight-year-olds and said, “Now, shall we resume our learning?”
We learned everything we needed to know that year. Her lessons on nouns, verbs, conjunctions, metaphors and figurative language stuck. Did she hand us worksheets? Take a guess. She would play silly, catchy grammar songs on the little record player and we would dance. Sometimes, in the middle of reading a story, she would stop and say, breathlessly, “Listen! Listen to this beautiful sentence!” Then she would ask if we thought it sounded beautiful too. We DID think it sounded beautiful! She would get up from her cozy rocking chair, walk to the board, and show us exactly why it sounded that way. We wanted to try it! It was like a magic trick! It was sentence diagramming, but she was wise enough not utter that dead, clinical moniker. Learning was never painful, frightening or hard. It was always amazing. Real learning is always like that.
Even I was was a math whiz that year. You know why? Because, at the beginning of the school year, after observing me working out a few (manageable) problems, she told me I was.
“YOU are excellent at math!” she said.
I’m sure my previous year’s math scores were in my file, and she was well aware that math was an “area of concern,” but I certainly didn’t need to know that.
That year, I soared through every math unit. I loved math and it loved me back.
The following year, not so much.
Mrs. Z., my fourth grade teacher, was more concerned with re-applying her bright red lipstick than teaching her fourth graders….anything, really. She used a pre-packaged program called “Math Your Way”–the precursor, I’m sure, of the computer-based, one-size-fits-all, math programs so popular today. There was no math instruction. I fell behind. I was, along with the other strugglers and stragglers, shamed in front of other students. Other students were routinely singled out and lauded. We all knew who Mrs. Z’s “shining stars” were. They were the ones who didn’t need any extra help at all.
I hated, hated, HATED math forever after.
And so it went. The “smart kids” were separated from the “dumb kids”. They didn’t say that out loud, but from 4th grade to 12th grade, we all read it loud and clear. Ten. Four.
The clean kids, the ones with neat handwriting, the ones who gave the “right” answers, the ones from certain families, were the “shining stars”. The others, well, they knew who they were. Diversity–cultural or otherwise– was rarely celebrated (Never? I seriously can’t think of one example between 1978 and 1987).
The Mexican girls I met in middle school were tough. They wore black eyeliner and flannel shirts and chains. The teachers didn’t ask them to teach us Spanish or invite their parents in to class to “bate bate” or share a favorite family dish. The teachers averted their eyes when those girls passed in the halls.
Kids misbehaved in class. Badly. In Language Arts, I was the “shining star”, but it didn’t make me feel good. It made everyone else resent me and pick on me. It made them feel ashamed in Language Arts, just as I felt ashamed when I walked into math class.
But I carried Mrs. Richardson with me and her distant, boundless approval gave me the stamina to move through it all. Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, with students of my own, I like to think of Virginia Richardson as a Patron Saint of sorts. Maybe she’s the Patron Saint of Lost Teachers, a beacon of reason, excellence and love in a too-often harrowing and disillusioning profession.
I summon her sprit whenever I’m about to cave in to something I know isn’t the right thing for my students. I ask myself: “WWVRD”? She never fails to steer me right back on course.
It’s that time again. Kids are heading back to class, heads full of ideas, excitement, fear, memories–good and bad, dreams and nightmares. I’m sending out a prayer that every student, everywhere, winds up in Mrs. Richardson’s class this year.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”
That’s what Walt Whitman said…
…and I’m sure the wizened poet is floating around up there, wishing he could smack me upside the head with his gnarly old cane, every time I say head-up-the-arse stuff like:
“WOW! It’ll be so great to have a Safeway within walking distance! I mean it’s SUCH a hassle to drive all the way to Kahului when I need, like, one thing at the market.”
“Oh, Long’s is almost open! I can pick up a bottle of wine when I’m on my run!”
“A TARGET? How exciting!”
These are things I’ve actually said before.
And that Long’s Drugs? It’s been open for almost a year and I’ve yet to plod down Wai’ale Road, sweat-soaked, red-faced with a bottle of Ghost Pines Pinot under my arm.
I am not happy about it at all, it turns out. Joni MItchell told us: “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”
Don’t it? Don’t it?
When did we stop listening to Joni? When did we tune her out, like an old transistor radio?
Is it too late to close my eyes and make it all stop? And if I feel this deep, deep sadness and regret, how does the Hub deal with it? He never complains.
How did everyone–everyone who lived here before all this– deal with the loss as they watched those hotels go up, one-by-one-by-one-by-one? Their favorite, secret beaches teeming with moi and o’ama, their reward at the end of bumpy, pot-holed dirt roads, all-but-disappear, obscured by manicured, stuccoed luxury?
A visitor on one of those beaches scolded my son when, at ten, he dove waaaaaay down and pulled up his first tako all by himself, with only a net. So proud and excited to bring it home to show his father, brine it, freeze it and eat it, as his dad and grandpa did. Only to come in, empty-handed, tears in his eyes.
“That man out there told me to let it go. He said I was hurting it.”
I had to wash the irony off with the sand and salt before getting in the car.
Where will we draw the line? Can we cut through the careful conditioning that makes us believe convenience and material crap can makes us happier? It doesn’t. It makes us lazier and heavier. When will we all realize we ALL need less, not more, more, MORE!!
I uttered that absurd line about our new neighborhood Mega-Safeway in the car a few months ago. Then I caught myself and tried to have a teachable moment with Jackson:
“I sound so spoiled. There are places in the world, like in African countries, where people have to walk for miles every morning just to get their daily jug of water.”
He, of course, saw my teachable moment and raised me a “pull your head out”:
“Well, maybe that’s how it’s been for thousands of years–that’s how they’ve always lived–and maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
I’ve got a question for you. Since when did everyone get so god-damned virtuous? Did I miss a memo? Because I have to visit the Beatific Pantheon of the People of Extreme Virtue nearly every day: scrolling down my Facebook feed, strolling through Whole Foods, skimming blog posts about juicing and breastfeeding and devil-gluten and CrossFit.
Sometimes it seems like we’re sinking into a special, self-(and-media)-induced, circle of Hell. One where we are either congratulating ourselves for permanently eschewing anything post- Industrial Revolution: “I don’t own a TV! I only eat raw foods! My posts are 100% organic and locally-grown! My kids are so pure they may come down with polio! I’ve never even SEEN a McDonald’s! My underwear is made of recycled, recycled newspaper! I just ran 10 miles wearing my own hand-crafted HAIRSHIRT!”
….Or hating ourselves for being ordinary schmucks: “Man, I suck. My kids eat Spam–and it’s not even raw. I don’t compost. I count my steps to the bathroom as exercise. Sometimes I fall asleep watching ‘Extra’. I Heart Gluten. Please Current New Age Guru, save me from the prison of my wayward self!”
It’s not entirely our fault. We’re information-saturated, postmodern animals—it’s no wonder we’re afraid of air, food and the same white airplane wake that used to spell out innocuous stuff like “Tan Don’t Burn Use Coppertone”, but has apparently been re-purposed to simultaneously kill us and save us from burning and drowning in the Great Inundation. Aren’t we all a wee bit tired of acting like characters in Jonathan Franzen‘s next novel? What if we’re just people who move in and out of philosophical and sociological constructs on an hour-by-hour basis? Maybe we’re cool with kale, but, when push-comes-to-shove, we’re not above a McChicken every now and again. Maybe we pick up the New Yorker AND an issue OK! Magazine with Katie and Suri Holmes on the cover, down a Jack and Coke or two, then board a plane to Liberia to save orphans and build houses. As Miles D. would say, “So What?”
One of my favorite Facebook friends is Amy. I don’t think I’ve seen her since June 15, 1985, but she makes me smile at least weekly with the unbridled, unabashed joy in her posts. In one of my top ten, a plate of technicolor cupcakes sits on her kitchen counter, accompanied by the singular proclamation: “Funfetti!!” If you don’t know Funfetti, you need to get down to Safeway right now and take a gander at the cake mix aisle, Miss Marie Antoinette. Amy loves Keith Urban and I don’t, but I love how she loves her country music and her family and her God. There is no judgement or piety, just revelry and celebration. Amy from High School is MY plate of Funfetti.
A few years ago I found myself, with my kids and my parents and the Hubby, sitting on a vast ziggurat of bleachers. We were at Disney World, it was just about nightfall and we were waiting for “Fantasmic” to begin. There might have been some Disney ™ background music to pump up the gathering hoard, but I’m not sure. I don’t remember. All I remember is this: suddenly the massive crowd broke into a spontaneous (and unusually stubborn)– “wave”–like we were all at the Super Bowl or something. The family next to me had Deeply Southern drawls and had been chowing down on popcorn and drawling rather grumpily, but when it came time for our segment to “wave,” they lifted their popcorn tubs, along with the smallest of their formidable brood waaaaay up high and said “YAY!!” The Hub hoisted our own little Buttercup in the air and we all shouted “YAY!!!” A few rows in front–and a little to the right–of us sat a big Muslim family, the women in expensive-looking hijabs and the men in shiny collared shirts. When it was time for them to “wave”, they all threw their hands over their heads and the dads lifted the babies up, and the aunties and moms opened their eyes wide at their children and yelled “Yay!!”
Finally, mercifully, Mickey appeared, bursting from a floodlit cloud of smoke, all decked out in his “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” ensemble. The crowd went wild! And I, crazy lady that I am, had a bona fide, Joycean epiphany right there on the plastic bleachers. Hundreds, nay, thousands, of people from all over the globe–likely of every religious and political persuasion–were going ape shit for some dude (or woman) disguised as a pupil-less, hydrocephalic rodent. And a voice inside me said, “Look at us. Look. at. us. We are deeply, fantastically absurd. We are a ridiculous fallen lot! Every one of us.”
Maybe a week later or so, back in line at Blue Bottle, someone in that crowd might have poo-pooed the experience as yet another Hijacking of the Human Imagination, a Cultish Celebration of American Excess, but that someone would just be covering his tracks. I know. I saw that person. And he was yelling “Yay!!” the loudest of all.
What is this thing in us, exactly, I wondered then, this thing that manages to push through dogma and class and culture and self?
It’s hard to name, but it might have something to do with the way the Dalai Lama is always cracking up over everything, I think. It’s that far-too-rare lifting of the great BS veil. A collective, momentary renunciation of the Hand-Knotted Hairshirt of Ego. The spontaneous roll in the snow. The perfectly-timed fart at the funeral. The dorky boogie-board ride of the soul.
Here’s to that thing.
That’s who I am. Except instead of a rock, I’ve been heaving and hauling the same ten pounds around for about 25……no, 30, years. Just when I think I can let go and release my burden for good–I’ve got everything balanced just so and I’m comfortably parading around in those size two trophy jeans–I relax a little and back they go, into the darkest, spookiest corner of my closet.
So I’m 45, it’s the tail-end of 2012 and I want it to be over. I think about all the minutes of my life I’ve wasted struggling, worrying, beating myself up. I consider all the thousands of dollars I’ve thrown away on diet books, online weight-loss sites, expensive “buy-our-food-only” regimes–
DukanBest LifeWeight WatchersJenny CraigMediterraneanSouth BeachInsanity!!
–and I get all embarrassed and ashamed and regretful . So that’s a great place to start, right? Shame and regret just make a gal want to get up and take on the world!!
Last year at this exact time, my ten pounds had gone missing. I thought we’d broken up, but it turns out it was just a trial separation. Over the course of 2012, we got back together…..gradually. We had our good times: a few croissants from that incredible boulangerie, a couple of glasses of wine with the hub, a little late-night ice cream in bed with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
And we had our bad times: bathing. suit.
So I’m just wondering now—should I give up and just leave the boulder that is my ten-pounds at the bottom of the hill? (I know. This lame metaphor is really falling apart. I thought about calling this post “Ahab” and going with a white whale, or maybe “Rime of the Dreaded Ten Pounds” and milking the Albatross thing, but I’m on paragraph three already, so Camus it is.).
Is this just how I’m supposed to be? Most of the truly fun, interesting, kind women I know are a little bit un-thin. I’m healthy, thank goodness. My kids are growing up beautifully and the hub still loves me. And how do I let go without, you know, totally LETTING GO (as in: “Whoa, she really let herself go.”)? Again with the balancing.
I had a little health scare last week. The doctor had this eerily worried look on his face when he asked “Any sudden weight loss?”
“Um. No,” I laughed, “I wish.”
“No you really don’t,” he said.
He had me there.
So here’s my new plan: I drive over to Kahakuloa, find me the BIGGEST boulder on the shoreline and take it to Waihe’e. Every day, I get up and push that mutha’ up the hill. When it rolls back down (which I’m guessing it will…..), I heave it all the way back up. Over and over again. After a month or two, when I finally have a rock-hard hiney and boulder-built biceps, I’ll release “The Sisyphus Plan” and make a million bucks off of people like me– who spend thousands of dollars trying to lose ten pounds.
Big effin’ deal. That’s what you’re saying right now. Everyone likes to say how much they like Paris. Lovin’ it the Springtime, lovin’ it in the Fall. Gag.
I’ve been pretty embarrassed about it for most of my life because people (namely, my family–my ex-husband, a few friends) always mocked my cliché, goo-goo-eyed notions of the La Cité des Lumieres. It wasn’t until this past summer, when I dragged the kids and the hubby from Paris to Nice, that I finally came to terms with the fact that I am, in fact, on the right track, baby. I was born this way. My “I heart Paris” is dead-on, and here’s why:
No duh….look at it up there ^ basking in it’s serendipitous loveliness, saying “Uh, huh, huh, Regardez-moi. I am Paree, you know. I cannot help zee fact zat I am, how you say, zee awesomest cité dans le monde.”
Never mind that Paree might follow up with, “You stupide Americaine.” Because, depending on its mood, or the presence of white socks and/or a fanny pack, it totally would. You bet your freedom fries, lots of Parisians are grossed out by Americans. It’s unfathomable, I know. I mean, what’s not to love about us?
One of my husband’s co-workers, who had recently returned from a European tour, shared with us this little story: “I was in the hotel restaurant in Paris and I was so f***ing sick of no one speaking American, so, finally, I had enough. I said to the waiter, ‘You go and find me someone who can speak GOD DAMN American, RIGHT NOW!”
Last summer we did the (Quel horreur!) requisite Open Top Bus with the kids. I have no shame when it comes to fun with my kids…I’ll put on Mouse Ears, dance in the street, take stupid pictures pretending to poke/stabilize/suspend famous monuments. We go balls-out on Family Vacations. Anyway…
The woman in front of us on the bus wanted her friends to know that she knew everything about Paris. The non-stop, top-of-her-lungs, Southern-accented narration included this, my favorite takeaway: “And Edith Pilaf lived right around here somewhere. Edith Pee-Loff. Oh! My! Gawd! You don’t know who Edith Pilaf is? She is (a favorite middle-eastern-influenced rice dish?) a FAMOUS FRENCH SINGER! Edith. Pilaf.” I looked around to see if anyone else was tuning in to this primo material, then I realized everyone else’s head set was plugged in and operable. But it happened.
Multiply these two anecdotes by millions every year, and, well, Paris just calls ’em as she sees ’em.
Let the record show that Paris also reeks of smoke and urine.
“And zat eez because I can and you weel still love me.”
So we just booked a teensy studio for next summer. It’s near our favorite spot, Place de la Contrescarpe. Just the hub and me this time, sans enfants. I will miss them, but they’ll be happily spoiled rotten at Grandma’s and we’ll be at Place Monge market sniffing pommes and pêches, buying cheap, drinkable wine at the hole-in-the-wall convenience store on Rue Mouf, wandering…. nowhere to go. Getting up early-ish and running from Place St. Michel to the Eiffel Tower and back (slightly masochistic bucket list item). And, finally, I’ll have a chance to plant my ass in a proper café and just write, and sip a coffee or a glass of wine, without feeling guilty about taking up a table, while hubby dons his sneakers and, as always, runs around making “friends” all over the place even though he doesn’t speak a word of French (it’s gotta be the aloha–I have no other explanation).
I have to teach a couple extra classes to cover the cost of the trip. And the bathroom linoleum won’t get replaced. And the front yard will remain a barren, mango-strewn wasteland. But we’ll always have Paris and Paris is always, always enough.
“Zat is correct. You stupide Americain.”
The first chilly night of the year. It does get chilly here. Really. The front door and all the windows are open and I suppose this fact would suggest, to most people, most places on earth: “not nippy in the least”. But we’ll take it. We’ll bundle up in our hoodies and tuck our toes under our sweat-panted asses and drink hot cocoa tonight.
Just this Saturday, sweat-soaked, flaccidly fanning, listlessly meandering through the Maui Swap Meet stalls, I couldn’t believe it would ever be anything but hot.
“Is it ever gonna cool off, you think?” I asked the mango-banana-guava vendor (only there were no mangoes…more on this later).
“Ho! I hope not. The tourists get cranky when it’s cloudy.”
We both laughed.
“Well, we could sure use some rain, yeah?”
“‘auwe!” (a Hawai’ian lament…which I love, because it’s the closest thing to “alas and alack!” I’ve heard East of the Restoration).
So here’s where the proverbial canker ka-naws. We like seasons here. And we have them. We have mango season–hot, sticky, nowhere-to-run-but-into-the-surf-or-into-the-nearest-movie-theater kind of season. That’s Summer. Spring is jacaranda season upcountry and the light is different. Crisper, clearer. The air is more buoyant and the contours of Haleakala deepen in the late afternoon. But people don’t save up for a year or more to come to Hawai’i for damn seasons. I don’t blame them. If they wanted buoyancy and contour, they could have stayed home. They want eternal sunshine and gently swaying (GENTLY swaying…not blustering) palms, the lilt of slack key off in the distance. Friendly locals who bring them things and shaka and ooze only aloha.
We have five mango trees in our yard. In the summer, they sag with with pinkening, oranging fruit. So many mangoes, we can’t keep up. I can’t handle the hefty mango picker. I’m short and ineffectual at most survival-handy endeavors like picking, gathering, killing scary things and fashioning a shelter out of fronds. I’d totally be the first one down in the Hunger Games. This means the hubby is tasked with handling the avalanching mango harvest. He picks, we puree, freeze, share with neighbors, friends, family, co-workers. Strangers come to the door asking if they can pick a few, presumably to sell. At first I was all haole about it. It freaked me out a little to have random people just pull up the driveway and ask to have their way with our picker. Then after a year or two, I adjusted. As I do. Little by little, season after season.
I live here:
It really looks like this. Any given evening (almost), I could linger over a glass of Pinot and behold this type of splendor, nuzzling the hubby and listening to the delighted squeals of joy emanating from my children as they frolic in the sherbet-shimmery sea. But I mostly don’t. We don’t. We’re stuck in the muck of all the mundane “devoirs”: dance, judo, Scouts, homework, Costco, paper-grading, email answering, article writing, house cleaning, dinner cooking, Daily Show DVRing.
Here’s the thing. When you live on “The Best Island in the Whole Freaking World” (tm), you’ve always got this alternate, postcard image of perfection hanging over your head like an annoying cartoon thought-box. When you have to work and your kids have to, you know, get all these “enrichment experiences” under their belt so they can go off to college someday and not act like a couple of Mid-Pac bumpkins, come sunset you’re usually too tired to head out for the basking and the frolicking. Plus, there’s the reading to do and the papers to grade (I teach English at the local college, so I’m always staring down the barrel of a stack or two). On the rare occasion when we drop everything and go out for a gaze, I feel like a shirker and, on the less-rare occasions when we stay in and do the pedestrian dailies, I always feel a little bit like a loser. Any way you slice it, you come up Slacker.
Still, this evening, as I head home with a trunk full of Costco, the ancient folds of Iao Valley suck up the waning sunlight and transform it into dripping, gilded rivulets. My breath catches, the love I feel for this place washes over me and I remember. Over on the West Side, beyond Iao Valley where the river runs blood, a maile-adorned, bare-chested local guy runs through manicured hotel grounds, passing the flood-lit fantasy pool, the massage cabanas, the thatched mai-tai bar. He lights the tiki torches, blows the conch shell, then dives off sacred Black Rock, suspended for a glowing instant, before disappearing into the dark land of the ‘aumakua.